Will the US ban TikTok? Boardroom breaks down everything you need to know about CEO Shou Zi Chew’s first testimony before the House of Representatives this week.
On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced off with the United States Congress for nearly six hours to defend the short-form video platform that has drawn over 150 million users in the US.
As Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he was met with intense questioning from lawmakers representing both parties. TikTok’s top exec aimed to prove the popular social media app’s safety and security amid widespread concerns over personal data. It marked the first time an executive from TikTok has testified before Congress and came weeks after the government granted President Joe Biden the authority to ban the app in the US completely.
But was Chew’s testimony enough to avoid TikTok’s ban in the US? Will the social media app be forced into a sale? We can’t quite answer those questions yet, but a lot in play can sway different ways at this point.
Here are some common themes and concerns that were discussed during the March 23 hearing:
- Content moderation, especially for underaged users
- TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese government
- The Justice Department’s investigation into TikTok’s alleged spying efforts
- Targeted marketing and advertisements for different age groups
- Safety of US users’ data
While sweating in the hot seat and finding himself consistently interrupted while speaking, Chew shared a new initiative called Project Texas meant to ease lawmakers’ minds.
Here’s what we know about it so far.
Everything We Know About Project Texas
The federal government’s main concern is that TikTok allegedly shares US user data with the Chinese Communist Party, an idea that Chew consistently pushed back against. TikTok’s answer regarding data privacy is wrapped up in Project Texas, a proposal that involves TikTok storing all US user data on American soil through a partnership with Texas-based tech giant Oracle. Chew confirmed that this data relocation is already in motion, and once complete, only a US-based security team can access the data. Additionally, the US government will have the ability to monitor the operation regularly.
Still, lawmakers don’t think that’s enough.
As House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in her opening statement:
“TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned. I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome, like that you are 100 percent responsible for what TikTok does, that you suddenly endorse a national data privacy standard, that Project Texas is more than just a marketing scheme, that TikTok doesn’t harm our innocent children, or that your ties to the Chinese Communist Party through ByteDance [are] just a myth. We aren’t buying it. In fact, when you celebrate the 150 million American users on TikTok it emphasizes the urgency for Congress to act. That is 150 million Americans that CCP can collect sensitive information on and control what we ultimately see, hear, and believe.”
TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in China, but TikTok’s own HQ is split between offices in LA and Singapore. US officials are concerned that since ByteDance has ties to China, the Chinese government has access to all of the company’s data, including from its subsidiaries. TikTok is connected to ByteDance in ways that parent companies are typically connected to their own businesses. Much like Meta and Facebook, TikTok and ByteDance communicate through messaging tools, meetings, and other traditional avenues.
Shou Zi Chew tried to clarify to Congress that TikTok isn’t operating any differently than any other business with a parent company and a globally distributed team.
“TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, US user data with the Chinese government,” the CEO said in his testimony. “Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made.”
Chew insisted that a stateside TikTok ban would hurt the US economy and small businesses that use the app for marketing purposes. He also insisted that even if ByteDance sells TikTok, that won’t change restrictions on data flows or app access.
“I am well aware that the fact that ByteDance has Chinese founders has prompted concerns that our platform could be used as or become a tool of China or the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “There have even been calls to ban us or require divestment. I steadfastly believe that all concerns that have been raised have solutions. Bans are only appropriate when there are no alternatives.”
The truth of the matter is that Chew never stood a chance in front of Congress; the hearing was convened to give lawmakers a platform to grill him before a large audience with cameras rolling, and they seized the opportunity on an uncommonly bipartisan basis. Representatives often didn’t give him time to expand on the intricate questions they asked in the five-minute windows they were given.
All told, observers who watched the hearing frequently referred to it as an embarrassment.
Still, data privacy and content moderation are essential matters to push social media companies to work on, and TikTok isn’t the only one that needs to hop on the hot seat. Stay tuned, because the battle over digital privacy never truly ends.
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